Poppy Tooker practices what she preaches. When you ask the native New Orleanian about her roots in the Big Easy, she’ll tell you she’s “homegrown”—much like the food she consumes.
Tooker, an author, cooking teacher, radio host, and food icon, has committed her life to exploring and preserving the local flavors and unique culinary history of New Orleans. Her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats!, spotlights the fields, farms, restaurants, and kitchens where the region’s food action literally stems from, so listeners can learn the stories of the people who contribute to the Big Easy’s renowned food culture.
We asked Tooker to give us a proper taste of New Orleans’s unique allure. Here’s what she told us.
How did growing up in New Orleans influence your love for food?
“Well, food has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my happiest childhood memories come from being at my great grandmother’s dining room table. Once I made the choice that food was going to be my life and my profession, I realized that there was really no better city to live in. I’m a native New Orleanian, so I feel connected to the cuisine and traditions here. But really, there’s no other place in the United States that has distinctive cuisine like New Orleans does.”
How did your love for food translate into the work you do currently?
“It seems that no matter which way I slice it, the thing that interests me most is food history. Because of this, my work is more about people than it is about recipes. For a long time, I was very involved in the slow food movement. [The slow food movement focuses on the promotion of small-scale, local agriculture to preserve regional traditions and knowledge.] It’s important to me to identify and promote endangered dishes that have important cultural ties to this place. Through my work, I’ve seen local heritage dishes that were almost extinct—like Creole cream cheese and rice calas—come back into the mainstream. It’s very inspiring—it’s an obsession of mine, really.”
So, what are the most important things to eat and must-visit spots to eat at in New Orleans right now?
“First, you need to try a muffaletta from the Napoleon House. I’d say you have to go to the Napoleon House when you’re in New Orleans anyway—when you walk in, it’s like you’ve gone back in time. The bar and café have been around for over 100 years, and everything is still as it was when it was first created. It’s a real treasure of a spot. I would also make sure to eat at Cochon Butcher and would strongly suggest the traditional breakfast at Brennan’s, which is a landmark restaurant. When it comes time to eat a po’boy—as far as I’m concerned, I want mine to come from Parkway Bakery and Tavern. Also, I always urge people to eat as much New Orleans French bread as they possibly can when they’re here, and to eat every last crumb. When you’re ready to adventure into something out of the ordinary, head to Michael Gulatta’s Vietnamese-inspired restaurant, Mopho. Also, check out Toups’ Meatery—and don’t forget Toups South, which is located across the street from the New Orleans Jazz Market inside the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.”
“There’s no other place in the United States that has distinctive cuisine like New Orleans does.”
Food aside, what are the must-visit places in New Orleans?
“To get a real taste of the city, visit some of our beautiful landmarks. City Park at the end of Esplanade Avenue is beautiful—it’s one of the largest city gardens in the United States. Lake Pontchartrain is also spectacular, and a lot of the seafood eaten in the city comes out of the lake, which makes it interesting to visit. And then, of course, you really do have to ride the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. It’s not at all a tourist trap—it’s a totally local experience.”
What do you think makes New Orleans a particularly amazing destination?
“New Orleans is so different from the rest of the U.S. that when you visit, you might feel the sense that someone will want to see your passport. When you come here, it’s truly as though you’ve left the United States and are in another country. This city has always been a place where immigrants have come and celebrated their cultures. Each one of those cultures has influenced our cuisine and made it the classic Creole cuisine that we know today. The mixture of foods from all different cultures, it all happens here. That’s New Orleans—it truly is a different world.”